You Feed Them – August 6, 2017
Bible Text: Matthew 14:13-21 | Preacher: The Rev. Dr. James R. Wheeler
Nick Shoff, a 13-year old 8th grader at East Ridge Middle School in Ridgefield, CT was doing what teenagers do: vegging out on the sofa and watching TV. He was deeply moved by American Idol Gives Back (a fundraising concert to benefit children in need throughout the world) and the many ways they showed how poverty hurts kids growing up in different parts of the world. He rummaged through his room he grabbed $14 from his piggy bank and thought about the story of a 12-year old African boy he had seen in a commercial. The boy’s parents and grandparents had died from AIDS so this boy had to provide for his brothers and sisters as well as for himself. Nick thought how he couldn’t even cook macaroni and cheese let alone do anything for himself without his parents or provide for his little sister. He wanted to do something, but what could a young kid do in the face of so much poverty and need? Nick thought about what he had. His parents were his role models, always giving to others. He lived in a privileged town, attended a good school and he loved basketball. But what was that in the face of the tremendous need the TV show had opened his eyes to? Nick organized a charitable 3 on 3 basketball tournament as a Social Studies project at his school to raise funds for poor children partnering with Hope International. Jamquest caught on at his school and together with the 50 people who attended the tournament raised $2700 for orphans and vulnerable children in a school in Kenya. 9 years later Jamquest 3 on 3 basketball tournaments have been held in schools and colleges all over the US. Jamquest has been supported by NBA players, coaches and celebrities. $10s of thousands have been raised. Nick is now a 22-year-old philanthropic entrepreneur who heads up Jamquest a charitable organization with a vision of mobilizing the half of the world’s 2 billion kids who have resources to be inspired to take an initiative and do something to help the 1 billion kids in this world who are desperately poor and lack those resources. (www.jamquest.org/)
The Gospel story of the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle of Jesus that is recorded in all 4 Gospels. Jesus and his disciples got in their boat and rowed to get away from the crowds and have some rest. Instead, the crowds followed him around the sea and a huge crowd met him when they got off the boat. After a long day of healing the sick and teaching about the good news of God’s Kingdom the disciples wanted to send the crowds away. “No,” Jesus said, “you give them something to eat.” When the story is told in the gospel of John it’s a little boy who offers his 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. Jesus takes the meager gifts that are offered, blesses them, breaks them, and distributes them among the crowds. The miracle is that all are fed and 12 baskets are needed to hold the leftovers. I’m sure that you can see the parallels between that boy with his 2 fish and 5 loaves and Nick Shoff who offered himself and his love for basketball.
Let me give you some other examples or parallels to that loaves and fishes miracle. A little over a year ago I was heading up a meeting I dubbed “a coffee hour summit.” I couldn’t help notice the disparity in the ideas we were sharing about what coffee hour should look like. Some folks at the table wanted to limit coffee hour to a simple stand-up affair with a few cookies a quick chat and everyone going home. They didn’t want the pressure to put on a full fancy meal every time someone signed up for coffee hour. Another group, who happened to all be Jamaican, were saying, no, we have to feed people. We can’t send people home hungry! It was a Jamaican woman – Paula Thompson – who, at a follow up meeting, offered what she had and accepted the ground swell of everyone encouraging her to be the new Hospitality Coordinator. I like the way that Paula has encouraged us to bring something to the table when we sign-up for coffee hour: it can be as simple as hard boiled eggs or hot dogs or cheese and crackers or veggies and hummus or bagels and cream cheese. Don’t break the bank and don’t feel you have to be a gourmet cook but give them something to eat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve known someone who was homeless or so financially challenged that they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, who has gotten a good meal at St. John’s coffee hour. It’s no surprise to me that on this day when we are celebrating 55 years of Jamaican independence that a great feast is being offered to everyone. Jamaicans, in my experience, know how to throw a feast. And like Jesus, they don’t want to send a crowd home hungry.
About 10 years ago Sheelagh Jones and Gus Schlegel, who were dating at the time had an interest in finding out more about Haiti. They accepted Fr. Paul Wectnick’s invitation to come and see a struggling parish that he had once served in Haiti. They saw the needs there and offered themselves to this ministry. The partnership that resulted has born fruit in much needed medical care, a partnership with Sacred Heart University’s Occupational Therapy department, help for the school, a school hot lunch program, computer supplies, employment and some ongoing exciting projects such as reforestation. It began as Sheelagh and Gus offering themselves and their enthusiasm.
An article in Christian History magazine (Issue 101 in 2011, https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/new-era-in-roman-healthcare/) entitled “How the Early Church Transformed the Roman Empire’s Treatment of Its Sick” by Gary Ferngren, describes how the charitable willingness of the early Christian Church to feed the hungry and care for the sick transformed an Empire. When plague affected a Roman Empire cities the wealthy inhabitants would flee while the poor, the old, the sick, the weak and the dying stayed behind with no one to care for them. No one, that is except the Christian Church, which cared for members and non-members alike. The spirit of Jesus, who told his disciples that they should give the crowds something to eat, persisted in the charitable work of the Church. It was that willingness to care for others, to visit the sick, to feed the hungry, to provide for the poor, that so distinguished the early Church from the rest of Roman society.
One of the most inspiring parishes Carol and I visited in our 2013 sabbatical, St. Gregory of Nyssa in the Mission district of San Francisco, serves approximately 800 people with much needed food each week. Dozens of volunteers man a variety of food stations handing out everything from a great variety of fresh produce to canned goods to rice and beans and cereal. Each person who comes through gets 2 or 3 grocery bags full of supplemental food. Volunteering at the food bank on Friday was the first impression we had of the church. When we came back on Sunday morning to worship we came back into that same large room and again gathered around the same central table where this time the priest took bread, blessed, broke it and handed it to the people as the Body of Christ and likewise took wine, gave thanks and offered it to all as Jesus’ Blood. The connection of those two different days was etched into my heart. The gift Jesus gave of himself at the Last Supper, of his Body and Blood is in many ways the same as the gift he offered on that hillside by the Sea of Galilee of feeding the hungry. In both places Jesus took the gifts, blessed, broke and distributed them. And in both cases those gifts have been multiplied. Jesus gave himself to feed our souls. He invites us to give of ourselves to feed those in need.
5,000 on a hillside must have seemed like an immense number of people to take care of. Whenever we take a look at the needs of the world all around us, whether it be getting people adequate employment, or housing, or education, or equal treatment under the law, or eradicating extreme poverty, or addressing mental illness or whatever immense human need God has given you eyes to see, what do you have to offer? That’s really the heart of this sermon – if each of us could think and realize what it is that I have to offer. Of course the gift you have will pale in comparison to the immense human need. But trust our Lord to take the gift you have, to bless it, to break it (and believe me Jesus stretches and breaks us in uncomfortable ways), to distribute it and to multiply it.
What is the gift you have to offer? Is it time in which you can volunteer? Is it an administrative skill? Is it passion for food? Is it enthusiasm for a sport or game (like a 13-year-old boy who loved basketball)? Is it a medical or engineering or other practical skill that is much needed? Is it the ability to speak another language or to teach? Maybe you have the gift of leadership? Or perhaps you have some financial resources? Look out with the eyes God has given you to see the immense needs of this world. “You give them something to eat,” Jesus tells us. We don’t need to know how everyone will be fed. We simply need to give what we have.